Do you love NASA? Curious about the future of space exploration? Just an uber-nerd like me who wants to visit all of the space destinations possible? A visit to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has to be on your list!
As part of my trip to Space Camp, I had the chance to visit NASA Marshall. In addition to the visitor center, you can take a bus tour to see some of the workspaces where NASA employees are building the next generation of rockets and help astronauts aboard the ISS. If you want to visit NASA Marshall, here’s what you need to know.
Where is NASA Marshall?
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center is located in Huntsville, Alabama. Huntsville is in northern Alabama near the Tennessee border. To get to Huntsville from Birmingham, AL, it’s a 90-minute drive. If you want to fly into another major city, it’s a 2-hour drive from Nashville or a 3-hour drive from Atlanta to Huntsville.
What is the Marshall Space Flight Center? What is the U.S. Space & Rocket Center?
As you’ll soon see, there are a lot of different organizations and acronyms involved with visiting NASA Marshall. Here’s a quick breakdown of the definitions:
- Marshall Space Flight Center – Also called MSFC or NASA Marshall, Marshal Space Flight Center is the primary NASA facility in Huntsville, Alabama.
- U.S. Space & Rocket Center – Also called the USSRC or erroneously “Space Camp” (which happens at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center), this is the public visitor center for Marshall Space Flight Center.
- Huntsville Operations Support Center – Also called (the) HOSC, this is a second NASA facility located on the Marshall Space Flight Center grounds.
- Redstone Arsenal – The Army Base on which Marshall Space Flight Center is located.
You already know what NASA and ISS stand for, right? Let’s move on!
What Does NASA Do in Huntsville?
Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) is the primary NASA facility responsible for rocketry and spacecraft propulsion systems. From the first mission to develop a rocket to take astronauts to the Moon – the Saturn V – through today’s Space Launch System (SLS), NASA Marshall is the place where these rockets are developed, tested, and assembled. MSFC isn’t always responsible for building the orbital vehicles (such as the Space Shuttle or Orion Capsule), but they build the rockets that put them into orbit.
NASA Marshall is also home to the Huntsville Operations Support Center (HOSC), which is responsible for payload operations aboard the International Space Stations. The HOSC works with astronauts aboard the ISS to make sure all of the experiments and other work is managed properly.
Can You Visit NASA Marshall?
Yes, it’s possible to visit NASA Marshall as part of a tour organized and operated by the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (which is the official visitor center for Marshall Space Flight Center). However, you can’t just drive your personal car to MSFC as it is located on Redstone Arsenal, an Army base, and escort and badges are required at all times for civilians on the base.
Note: NASA provides a resource about ‘self-guided’ tours of NASA Marshall (here), but this is only available to people who have a badge and access to Redstone Arsenal. Civilians cannot take a self-guided tour of MSFC.
How to Visit Marshall Space Flight Center
If you’re set on visiting MSFC, the only way to do so is by booking the tour at U.S. Space & Rocket Center (USSRC). Here are the details.
Visiting U.S. Space & Rocket Center
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is open 7 days per week, 365 days per year (with the exception of Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day). The best way to describe USSRC is as a fantastic science museum with interactive exhibits and galleries, a theater, and a planetarium, plus simulations and events. Some of the exhibits include the Saturn V Hall at the nearby Davidson Center for Space Exploration, the history of NASA Marshall and Wernher Von Braun, the outdoor Rocket Park and Shuttle Park, a lunar landscape, and several rides that simulate various space-like experiences (the “G-Force Accelerator” and “Moon Shot“).
There’s also a temporary exhibit about the Apollo program, Apollo: When we Went To The Moon, which is on display through December 2019 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
USSRC is home to Space Camp, too. If you’re planning to attend Space Camp, you’ll have plenty of time to visit the rest of the USSRC before and afterward.
Curious What Space Camp is Really Like? Check out our video & post!
Admission to the USSRC is $25 for adults, $17 for kids 5-17, and free for children under 5. There are additional add-ons for planetarium or theater shows.
Booking Your NASA Marshall Tour
To visit NASA Marshall, you’ll need to book the bus tour when you buy admission to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. (You don’t have to buy admission to the USSRC to visit Marshall, but why wouldn’t you?!) You can buy tour tickets in advance by phone or at the main ticket desk until 12:00 pm each day. There are limited seats on the tour each day, so if you’re only visiting the USSRC, be sure to book your spot in advance.
Tour Details & Logistics
The NASA Marshall Bus Tour happens once daily. The bus departs from the front of the USSRC at exactly 12:30 pm and lasts 2-2.5 hours. Tickets cost $20 per person (age 5+), children under five are free. To go on the tour, you’ll need I.D. such as a driver’s license or passport (for anyone 16 or older), plus you can’t bring any large bags or food or drink.
What You’ll Experience on a Tour of NASA Marshall
The bus tour of Marshal Space Flight Center varies a little bit each time depending on your driver and tour guide, but there are some sights you can expect to see on every tour.
Building 4200 – MSFC’s Central Laboratory and Office Building
The Central Laboratory and Office Building, more commonly called Building 4200, is a primary administrative building for MSFC. Outside you’ll see the official NASA Marshall sign, as well as several rocket engines that you can walk around and learn about.
The Historic Test Stands
The Historic Test Stands and nearby bunker are where Wernher Von Braun and his team tested the earliest rocket engines in the NASA rocketry program. This test stand – and the bunker that was supposed to protect the engineers – seems quite small, which makes it all the more impressive that they predated the engines that took us to space and the moon!
The HOSC / ISS Payload Operations Center
One of the most interesting stops on the MSFC tour is at the HOSC – the Huntsville Operations Support Center. Also called the ISS Payload Operations Center, this is where you can watch NASA employees communicating directly with astronauts aboard the ISS as they do their science experiments each day. the HOSC helps astronauts manage their time and accomplish the goals of each mission.
Similar to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, there’s a Rocket Park on the Marshal Space Flight Center grounds. In the Park, several fascinating rockets stand as tributes to the eras of rocket development at Marshall: a Hermes, an early U.S. adaptation of the V-2 wartime rocket that stands beside it; a Jupiter C, used to launch Explorer I; a Juno II, designed to launch early satellites and space probes; and a Saturn I, America’s first dedicated space launcher.
Bonus: Behind the Scenes at MSFC & the HOSC
SLS Rocket Support Center
One of the cool places my group visited was the new SLS Rocket Support Center. A bit like Mission Control, this is where the NASA teams and contractors will oversee SLS launch and operations. Here, we had a chance to meet with some of the NASA staff that will work in the room on launch day.
Dynamic Test Stand
This is another historic test stand at MSFC that most people don’t see: the Dynamic Test Stand where the Saturn V and Space Shuttles were tested. This Test Stand was originally used until it was replaced by the test stands at Stennis Space Center. Today, the Dynamic Test Stand is a relic to a former chapter of NASA history – and it’s a pretty cool, massive artifact to see in person.
SLS Test Stand
The SLS Test Stand is a new structure at NASA Marshall, built specifically to test components for the SLS like the massive hydrogen tank. When my group visited, there were no components being tested, but NASA recently shared photos of the hydrogen tank being loaded in.
3-D Printing Lab
Another fascinating spot we spent time talking with NASA staff was in the 3-D printing lab. It’s probably unsurprising that NASA is using the most advanced tech available to try and make the rockets of the future. In the 3-D printing lab, we saw some of the printed metal pieces that might eventually make their way to space!
Space Habitat Mockup & Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter
Part of the behinds-tour included a stop at an unnamed building where we saw some of the amazing projects NASA is working on for the future of space exploration. We had the chance to tour a space habitat mockup, but also to meet engineers creating VR simulations. These kinds of sims allow astronauts to perfect their skills before they go to space.
In the same building as the Space Hab and VR test space, we got to see one of the big components of SLS: the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter. This is one of the largest pieces of SLS that wasn’t built at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility. It will connect the core stage to the cryogenic propulsion system; it really is as big as it looks!
These are just some of the fascinating projects at MSFC that we got to see during our behind-the-scenes tour… There was so much more we saw that we weren’t able to photograph or stop to see up close. Hopefully, all of this info and the photos will inspire you to take a trip too!
Have any other questions about visiting NASA Marshall? Email us!
Featured photo credit: NASA/MSFC